It may surprise some of you to learn that I'm really rather an emotional person. It's easy enough not to show it online, but in real life I'm up and down all the time. And as a result, I've had plenty of encounters with that little voice inside my head. You know. The one that never switches off. The one that treats everything as a research opportunity. The one that comments on your life as though it's watching someone else.
To take an example, there was a time when I used to get drunk on a reasonably regular basis. At the risk of upholding numerous clichés, I'll tell you: it was when I was a student. I would run around doing all the ridiculous and potentially life-threatening things that people in that state get up to. Yet even as I was climbing into a skip or trying to ride home in a shopping trolley, a small part of me would always remain detached. More than detached – faintly scathing. What are you doing? it would ask the rest of me. Do you know how ridiculous this is? You do realise that one in ten deaths in this country are caused by drinking alcohol, don't you? Yet at the same time, it would urge me on. Try doing this. See how it feels. I might need to know one day.
So far, so annoying. But it doesn't stop there. Every time I'm frightened or nervous or upset – every time I'm feeling any emotion beyond mild contentment – out comes the mental notebook. No matter how intense the feeling, there's always a part of me that isn't involved. Instead, it just sits back and observes, because it knows these observations could be useful to what I do. This is how a person behaves when they're in a towering rage. Perfect for Chapter 23. Even at the moments of greatest sorrow in my life – of which there have been thankfully few, but by no means none – that detached little presence is always there at the back of my mind, taking notes. So this is what it feels like when you lose a close family member. Interesting. I could use that. Oh, you're going to cry now … It doesn't matter how much I want it to go away. How much I hate myself for thinking that way at such a time. I can't switch it off. It gathers and files my life experiences, while the rest of me is shaken and battered by every emotion that flows through my veins.
Because, in the end, that's what it means to be an artist – a writer or a painter or a musician or anything else. We feed off the things life gives us, the good and the bad. We feed off our own experiences, and more than that – we feed off other people's. Anyone who has ever heard the news of a tragic event and felt genuine empathy for those involved, but at the same time thought This would make a great plot for a novel, will know what I'm talking about. In some sense we are all exploiting the people around us, constantly searching for real experiences, real emotions, real lives. That's not to say, of course, that we are malicious or unfeeling. Empathy and a good story go hand in hand: without the one, we wouldn't recognise the other. The greatest artists are often those who have suffered pain or despair or hardship yet recognise a spark in the darkness, the potential for transformation into something beautiful. Without the ability to take our raw emotions and turn them into something that speaks to others, we wouldn't be much use as writers.
So here's to the little voice. Though it can be frustrating, even disturbing, I wouldn't want to be without it. May it take the bad times in my life and turn them into literature.